As the viral video “Kony 2012” leaves no doubt, Joseph Kony, the man who leads the Lord’s Resistance Army in Uganda, is a bad, bad man. The video, produced by Invisible Children and disseminated via email and social networks, has also demonstrated the ability of social media to spread knowledge and ideas, including awareness of injustice in other parts of the world. There’s no question that millions of people were moved by the video, and want to do something.
Critics have raised some issues about the Kony campaign: there are lots of evil warlords in the world, and it probably isn’t feasible to mount a huge PR campaign to bring each one to justice. Nonetheless no one can really take issue with the goal of apprehending Kony, who is obviously evil. Still, some legitimate questions remain, the most important of which is: how do you maintain interest and commitment in a cause in the long term, for the period of time -- however long it may be -- required to actually solve the problem?
The video states that “99% of the planet doesn’t know who Kony is; if they did, he would have been stopped long ago.” And in America’s democratic system, popular understanding of the situation and belief in the need to apprehend Kony are certainly a prerequisite to continuing U.S. involvement. As the video notes, Kony has gone into hiding, and has thus far eluded the African troops, assisted by U.S. special forces advisors, who are hunting him. Acknowledging this fact, the video lays out a plan to recruit popular cultural figures and key policy-makers to spread the word and maintain pressure on Congress and the White House to keep U.S. forces in the field, helping hunt Kony. On April 20 they are also planning a massive publicity push, also with the goal of expressing the popular will to those in power.
The accomplishments of the anti-Kony campaign to date are impressive. But what happens if Kony isn’t apprehended (or killed) in a timely fashion, say by the end-of-year deadline suggested by the video? What if he isn’t brought to justice for another five, or even ten years? As the example of Osama bin Laden showed, fugitives can indeed be run down eventually -- but often only after a long period of searching, especially when the object of the hunt knows the terrain. And Kony knows the terrain, which extends over 40,000 square miles of jungle spanning Central Africa (the historical area of operations of the LRA).
This means that finding Kony -- let alone defeating his remaining forces, let alone actually apprehending him -- could take quite some time. In this scenario, how can the social media momentum created by the incredible success of the viral video “Kony 2012” maintain itself in the long term? Once you have forged a connection via social media, how do you keep someone inspired about a cause, not just for weeks or months, but years, if need be? As the video warns, the success of the campaign will rest entirely on its ability not just to spread awareness but to keep people interested in the issue; otherwise the emotional connection forged by a well-made piece of content can prove all-too-fleeting.